During the 1930s, the film industry produced myriad “scare films” that warned the public against such societal ills as alcohol, promiscuity and “dope.” The hilariously dreadful 1936 epic “Reefer Madness” was screened in high schools for years as a fictionalized but fact-based representation of the hellish enslavement awaiting those who were tempted to try the “demon weed” marijuana. Inspired by campy hipness of “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Night of the Living Dead,” the team of Kevin Murphy (book, lyrics), Dan Studney (book, music) and Andy Fickman (director) has exploded the basic structure of the film, creating a wonderfully inventive, super-charged musical parody, featuring a first-rate ensemble. The show’s overall effectiveness, however, is lessened by the second act’s heavy-handed commentating on the movie’s absurdly self-righteous premise.
Driven by music director/keyboardist Nathan Wang and a taut five-piece pit band, the show gets off to a rip-roaring start as a chorus of drug-maddened zombies belt out the catchy title song, declaring that this killer weed is “… turning all our children into hooligans and whores.”
As in the movie, the monumentally serious Lecturer (Harry S. Murphy) narrates the tragic downfall of two squeaky clean, all-American high school kids, Jimmy (Christian Campbell) and Mary (Jolie Jenkins), who come under the influence of the devilish dope pusher Jack (Robert Torti) and reefer den hostess Mae (Lori Alan).
Interweaving the thoroughly malleable Murphy throughout the plot, director Fickman skillfully guides Jimmy (played to hapless perfection by Campbell) down a path of moral decay that includes such morbid items as sexual deviancy, child abandonment, murder, suicide, execution, dismemberment and cannibalism.
Along the way, the production creates an infectious, high-camp life of its own, highlighted by the nonstop talent and energy of its chorus (Michael Cunio, Erik Liberman, Fidelia Rowe, Stacy Sibley, Heidi Good), further enhanced by the surrealistic production designs of set designer John David Paul, costumer Dick Magnanti, lighting designer Jason Grandpre, sound designer Randy Mills and cartoon props creator Savage Steve Holland.
Musical highlights include, “Down at the Ol’ Five-and-Dime,” a jitterbug-laced tribute to the big-band-era neighborhood soda fountain, featuring an adroit dance turn by Torti’s opportunistic Jack.
The supporting cast members are equally impressive. Jenkins’ Mary makes an impressive transition from virginal princess to whacked-out whore during “Little Mary Sunshine,” in duet with John Kassir’s maniacal, limb-gnawing weed freak Frank. Alan’s Mae offers a sadly comical justification for her abuse-ridden relationship with pusher Jack because of her dependency on “The Stuff.” And Erin Matthews is perfect as the life-hardened reefer slut Sally.
Murphy and Studney should have quit while they were ahead instead of cluttering the second act with closing comments ridiculing the media’s ignorant reaction to the ongoing popularity of marijuana.